The way some people talk about whisky, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it all came from Scotland, and I'll admit to being one of the worst offenders. I love Scotch whisky; it is my career, my hobby, and my great passion. But whisky (and indeed whiskey) is not purely a Scottish thing; there is a fantastic world of whisk(e)y out there for the casual drinker and connoisseur alike. For the curious, let's take a world tour.
We'll start with Ireland, as they are among the first to have produced this glorious drink, with a written reference dating back to at least the 14th century, when it was recorded that a clan chief expired after drinking too much. But this is not a history tour, so let's focus on Irish Whiskey (they typically spell it with the 'e') as it stands today. Irish Whiskey tends to be one of the lighter and more delicate whisk(e)y styles globally, featuring vibrant fresh fruit, floral, and grassy notes, partly due to their tradition of triple distillation and their sparing use of peat. There are four main types of Irish Whiskey, all of which must be aged in oak for a minimum of three years:
Pot Still Irish Whiskey: Distilled from a mash of at least 30% malted barley, at least 30% unmalted barley, and other unmalted cereals. It must be distilled in pot stills such that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used. Examples include Green Spot and Redbreast.
Malt Irish Whiskey: Made from just malted barley, water, and yeast, and distilled in pot stills such that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used. Malt Irish Whiskey has a distinctive smooth, velvety, full, and oily texture with a malty and sweet taste, which is similar in style to a Scotch single malt whisky. Teeling and Tullamore Dew produce single malt Irish Whiskey.
Grain Irish Whiskey: Produced from malted barley not exceeding 30% and other whole unmalted cereals like maize, wheat, or barley, and distilled in column stills such that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used and the column distillation method. It is comparable to Scotch single grain whisky. Teeling and Kilbeggan produce single grain Irish Whiskey.
Blended Irish Whiskey: A mixture of any two or more of the styles listed above, with the best-known example being Jameson Blended Irish Whiskey.
Sticking with the 'e' for a moment, we move onto American Whiskey. The most famous style is Bourbon, known for its rich, sweet, vanilla-laden profile, but there are many different styles to consider:
Bourbon whiskey: Made from a mash that consists of at least 51% corn. Examples include Jim Beam. For the record, Bourbon can be made anywhere in the US, not just Kentucky.
Rye whiskey: Made from a mash that consists of at least 51% rye. Examples include Sazerac Rye.
Rye malt whiskey: Made from a mash that consists of at least 51% malted rye.
Malt whiskey: Made from a mash that consists of at least 51% malted barley.
Wheat whiskey: Made from a mash that consists of at least 51% wheat.
Corn whiskey: Made from a mash that consists of at least 80% corn.
Tennessee whiskey: Not defined in legislation but meets the requirements for Bourbon, with the additional requirements that it be made in Tennessee and go through the 'Lincoln County' process. Examples include Jack Daniels.
Most American whiskies, with the exception of Corn whiskey, must be aged in new American oak barrels. Unlike most other whisk(e)y-producing countries, they may not use second-hand casks, European or Japanese oak, or other sizes such as butts, pipes, and puncheons. Legislation also does not define a legal minimum aging period, though the term 'Straight' as in 'Straight Bourbon Whiskey' indicates that it has aged for at least two years.
(Updated on 3 September 2023)
American Single Malt Whisky: In recent years, American Single Malt Whisky has emerged as an exciting and rapidly growing category within the world of whisk(e)y. This style pays homage to the traditional single malt Scotch whisky, but with an American twist. Distilleries across the United States are crafting exceptional single malts, using 100% malted barley and often experimenting with unique aging techniques and flavor profiles. American Single Malt Whiskies can vary widely in taste, from rich and malty to smoky and complex. Brands like Westland Distillery and Stranahan's have gained acclaim for their innovative expressions, showcasing the diverse terroirs and creativity of American whisky producers. Keep an eye on this category as it continues to evolve and redefine the American whisky landscape.
The Scots soon followed the Irish in producing whisk(e)y, though they choose to spell it 'whisky,' and are probably the most famous whisky producers in the world. They are known for a generally richer and bolder style, with greater use of peat and a tendency towards double rather than triple distillation. They produce five main styles, some of which are not very well-known.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky: Their oldest known style, dating to at least 1494, and probably earlier, Single Malt must be made with 100% malted barley, water, and yeast. It must be the product of only one distillery and distilled in pot stills. Much loved by whisky fanatics around the world, examples include Glenfiddich and Laphroaig.
Single Grain Scotch Whisky: First created in the 1800s, single grain is again the product of just one distillery, but it typically uses a mixture of different grains and is distilled in a continuous still. It is generally a more neutral spirit than single malt. Examples include Haig Club.
Blended Malt Whisky: A mixture of two or more single malt whiskies with no single grain whisky. Examples include Monkey Shoulder.
Blended Grain Whisky: A mixture of two or more single grain whiskies with no single malt whisky. Examples include Hedonism by Compass Box.
Blended Whisky: A mixture of one or more single malt whiskies with one or more single grain whiskies, this is probably the best-known whisky category in the world. Examples include Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal, and Grants.
(Updated on 3 September 2023)
Japanese whisky has gained international acclaim for its exceptional craftsmanship, drawing inspiration from Scottish whisky-making traditions. Japanese distillers have honed their skills to produce a wide range of expressions, known for their precision and balance. Brands like Yamazaki and Nikka have become highly regarded globally, offering a diverse selection of single malts, blends, and innovative aging techniques, such as Mizunara casks, which impart unique flavors to the whisky.
India has also made a significant mark in the world of whisky production. Indian whisky is often characterized by its tropical aging conditions, which accelerate maturation and contribute to distinct flavors. Brands like Amrut and Paul John have garnered attention for their high-quality single malts and innovative approaches to whisky production. Indian whisky is an exciting category that continues to evolve, offering enthusiasts a taste of the subcontinent's rich and diverse flavors in each sip.
Whisky does not belong to any one country, and today there are dozens, if not more than a hundred countries, producing whisky. There are many countries on the rise in whisky, including India, Taiwan, Australia, England, France, South Africa, Wales etc. Many of these 'new world' whisky countries are yet to fully develop their own distinctive style, but if you're a whisky lover with a heart for exploration, the world today is an exciting place.
[The article was first published in Thirst Magazine Issue 2 in 2017.]
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